The door to the gas station opened with a tinny gling, the antiquated bell chiming as Devin entered the store. The sound was a testament to the essence of the small backwoods town. At best it was quaint; at worst it was a sign of dilapidation in the middle of snowy nowhere.
As he entered he picked up one of the newspapers by the door, reading the headline: Holy Man Murdered Outside of Ohio Mosque—Imam Basam Al Nassar Shot to Death in Car.
The person behind the counter was a young man. He was too old to be a boy, but he hardly exuded an aura of maturity. He was blond, with shaggy hair that hung in his eyes. Lips, nose, eyebrows, and ears were all pierced. The Virgin Mary was tattooed on the side of his neck. He didn’t seem to notice Devin’s approach at first, until the clipping sound of expensive shoe heels were within feet of the counter. The checker looked up, face startled.
Devin was used to it. His skin was black, which meant he looked different from the locals. The result was distrust. He didn’t like it, but he didn’t sink to showing it—no sign of weakness. Instead he advanced with purpose, stopping at the counter.
“Can I help you?” the checker asked, eyes darting over the new face.
Devin said nothing, simply sliding a crisp fifty-dollar bill across the glass.
The checker nodded through his unsettled demeanor. “Just the gas?” he asked.
“And the newspaper,” Devin said, voice articulate and commanding. Then something changed. He felt it in his stomach this time. No images, just the sinking feeling of finality and irreversible death:
Soon. Too soon.
Not days or hours.
His cellular phone came open with a snap.
Devin reached into his wallet, swiftly removing and writing on a business card before sliding it across the glass countertop. He tapped his index finger on the card, indicating the neatly written script across its back. He tightened his vocal cords, voice intense.
“I need you to call the police. Tell them to send a car to this address. A woman’s life is in danger. Do you understand?”
Devin was looked over skeptically. “That all depends on what you have in mind. What’s your business here?”
Small towns, Devin thought cynically. People always talked about the joys of small town living, but he personally found it infuriating—nosy people who didn’t trust you if they hadn’t grown up with you. At least in the city you had a reason not to trust each other.
“Do it,” he said with a commanding edge, “and do it now.” He left the store, pushing through the curtain of early-spring snow.
The young man behind the counter looked over the letters, taking a moment to let the information sink in. He brushed his thumb anxiously across his lower lip, shifting a piercing. “Hey . . . ” His voice dragged inarticulately.
“Hey, Gary.” The checker lifted his head, calling to the far end of the gas station near the refrigerators on the back wall.
“Yeah?” a voice called back.
A gruff-looking man with a craggy face approached the counter. “What is it?”
“That guy just told me to have the cops sent here,” the checker said, handing over the business card.
Gary looked it over, thinking for a second. “I know this place,” he said with a nod. “Outsiders trying to tell us how to run our own town,” he growled, then crumpled the card in his fist.
The eggs were burning.
Brett cursed quietly under his breath as he reached for the skillet, trying to keep breakfast from turning to coal.
The kitchen phone rang.
He lifted it from the cradle, positioning it snugly between his shoulder and cheek as he fought with the eggs, waving smoke away with a towel.
“Yeah?” he said through a cough.
“This is Gary.”
“Hi, Gary; how can I help you?”
“Some guy just came by the gas station. Black fella, nice suit, fancy coat—looked like he might work for the IRS or something.”
Brett paused. “Did he say what he wanted?”
“He wanted somebody to send the cops over.”
“Why?” Brett stammered, eyes moving toward the CCTV monitor on the countertop.
“Do you think he’s headed here now?”
Brett continued to stare into the monitor. “How long ago did he leave?”
“Just a second ago.”
He watched as the black-and-white screen flickered: it showed the image of the girl as she sat tied to her chair in the dark basement room below, hair hanging across her bowed face, morose from her captivity. “I can’t talk right now,” Brett said shortly, then hung up.
This was a problem.
Hannah’s head hung, long brown hair in her eyes.
Her face felt pasty with cold, fatigue, and pain. Dark lumps covered her body, swelling bruises on her cheek and forehead from rough treatment. Arms behind her back, she sat in a chair, wrists and ankles tied to the wooden frame, chair legs bolted to the floor.
The room was dark. Mattresses and foam padding lined the walls and windows to soundproof the basement room. Tan foam lined the seams between sound-buffering pads, rippling in imperfect bubbles and waves, frozen solid in time as it had been spewed from an aerosol canister. A tiny security camera was fixed in an upper corner.
Time stood still for her. One long unbroken moment of darkness and fear was all that filled her memory. Hours? Days? Weeks? She had no perception of how long she had been there. They had turned on lights at moments, brilliantly hot and bright, stabbing at her eyes, then extinguished them for what could have been days on end.
Every time she fell asleep they woke her. Feedings were sporadic—two meals she knew could have only been forty-five minutes apart. Judging time had been easier when they were still playing music—something they had done to make sure she couldn’t hear them until they realized how well they had soundproofed her room. The length of the songs had given her a perception of time, but now that measure was gone, and her sanity was going with it.
Hannah had been raised in a conservative Christian home. It was something she had taken at varying degrees of seriousness throughout the phases of her life, but here, now, in the abyss, in her hour of darkness, she clung to it.
At first her prayers had been specific, personal, and directed to God as if He were standing right in front of her. Now she was tired, her mind swimming. Her lips mumbled out a tiny incoherent appeal, begging for rescue, pleading for light, imploring for continued safety, hoping upon terrified hope that the sanctity of her body would not be violated. Through her pleas she felt God draw closer and her sanity slip further away.
She was hallucinating. She had to be, seeing things that had happened long ago or not at all—and she felt it coming on again. It had been different each time, but she always felt it coming. This time it was a taste, like the bright tang of a penny in her mouth.
Then she began to see things that weren’t there—
A cold car.
An Islamic holy man praying for forgiveness that Allah, the merciful and just, would have pity on him. He had recruited young, innocent Palestinian men to bind explosives to themselves—to walk into crowds of Israelis—to kill—and to die.
He had failed for years to free Palestine from Israel.
He was an American now, the imam of a small Ohio mosque. A man of peace.
Sitting in the car, waiting for it to warm up.
Thoughts of his sons—wanting to kiss them before they went to sleep.
A pedestrian in a heavy coat walking in the direction of his car.
The man reached into his jacket.
Clawing at the car door—trying to escape. The first bullet punching through the glass.
Pain. Skin breaking. Muscle splitting. Bone shattering.
Horror. Pain. Grief. Screaming.
The windshield blistering with holes.
Thoughts of his wife—of his children.
Body torn to pieces by the striking of lead.
Minutes later a jogger in the middle of the street, stammering into his cell phone. “The windshield is filled with bullet holes and there’s blood...everywhere!”
It all came over her like a flood, a pouring out of pictures in her mind. But then there was one more thing. Not an image, but a feeling—that half a continent away someone else had felt it all happening too.
The sedan thundered down the wet, snowy dirt road. White snow, brown mud, and ashen gravel kicked up and out from the sides of the vehicle. The silver automobile cut through the road’s debris like a blade as the surrounding world blurred into fleeting streaks.
A midsize luxury sedan with a manual transmission—as always, the vehicle of choice the rental company had in his file. Devin had rented it at the airport expecting to have more time, but he didn’t. He hadn’t expected to cut it so close, but there was no reasoning with it now. All he could do was drive, hands gripping the wheel as if he had to wrestle the sedan to the ground like a beast.
The snow had stopped falling for the moment, and that helped—a little. But what a horrid frozen wasteland to be trapped in. Back home in New York, spring had already begun—sunshine all over. But he had to be called here: to the only place in the entire continental United States to have a blizzard, where snow had fallen in buckets and the sun hadn’t been seen in days.
To his right Devin saw the house appear over the horizon as the silver car glided up the hill. Five minutes at the most. He was almost there. He checked his phone again and snarled—too far from any kind of cell tower—a snowy wasteland.
Somewhere in the back of his mind he focused himself, aligning his will and his strength in faith. Some would call it a prayer. Devin resisted that word prayer. To him it was a necessary requisitioning of needed resources—spiritual or otherwise, it didn’t matter.
It was his thoughts narrowing into a finely focused, single-minded bolt of mental force, preparing for imminent havoc.
Hannah’s mind swam.
She saw him as her world dissolved to white.
Tall, handsome, dark skin.
Sitting at a dinner party.
Pausing. Something changing.
A thought or epiphany.
The man boarding a plane.
Strikingly handsome in an olive-colored suit that seemed to radiate class, money, and power. His frame stood strong in the midst of the frozen breeze, his tight muscular body accented by the hang of the trench coat over his strong shoulders.
He had been afraid for her, more than just for her captivity; for something far more treacherous. She paused. How afraid should she be for herself?
Brett growled in anger. It was really fear, but he denied it by letting it bubble out in a swell of wrath.
“I should never have let you use my home!” He was frantic, nearly wringing his hands. “This can’t be happening!”
Snider and Jimmy stared at him, unmoved. They didn’t take him seriously. They thought he was prone to panic, that was all.
“Calm down,” Jimmy said sarcastically.
“Calm down? Calm down?” His face burned. “We’ve got a girl in the basement. That’s kidnapping! And this fella’s gonna bring the cops!”
Snider, middle-aged and dressed in black, stepped forward. “And what if he’s not?” He was the leader, the one who had approached Brett, offered him money for the use of his home. Brett knew he had a reputation for being somewhat shady, but Brett liked money. And now things were getting serious.
“If you don’t settle down, you’re going to look suspicious,” Snider continued. “And then what will you do when he really does bring the cops?”
Brett waved his hands nervously. “This has gotten out of hand. We can’t do this anymore.”
“What do you suggest?” Snider asked. “That we dispose of her?”
There was a long silence as they all looked at one another; then Brett turned sharply, heading for his room.
“Where are you going?” Snider asked.
Brett called back, “I’ll deal with this!”
The turn was a blind corner, covered by snow. Devin slammed on the brakes, and the car lost control.
The back end of the car swung wide, losing traction in the slick of white. The tires left wide swaths of grime as the side of the car crunched into a pack of snow. Devin worked the sedan into gear and eased into the gas—the engine revved, the vehicle rocked, but he didn’t move forward. He gave the pedal a futile stomp, but he knew all he was doing was chopping ground into snowy pulp.
His eyes lifted, mind calculating the distance—maybe a hundred or so meters. He shoved the door open and climbed out into the snow. Cold ran up his foot, into his throat. It wasn’t the cold of the snow; it was—
Panic. Anger. Desperation.
Blam. Blam. BLAM!
The killer’s face, covered with relief.
His foot slipped, his body nearly going down. It had snowed again the night before, and the snow was as deep as three feet in some places. Devin lifted his burning legs, body heaving forward through the thick mass beneath him.
He’d done forced marches before. Ten years of military life had provided him with everything he needed in this moment, everything he’d ever needed to live this life.
Devin looked up.